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Missa Russica 2
Dimitri Moîsseîevich IAΪTCHKOV (1882-1953)

Dostoïno iest (Hymn to the Mother of God) [3:52]
Pavel Gripôrievitch TCHESNOKOV (1877-1944)

Soviet prevetchnyi (Gabrielís annunciation) [3:40]
Serge RACHMANINOV (1875-1943)

Nyné otpuchtchaîechi (Song of Simeon) [3:37]
Bogoroditse Devo (Ave Maria) [2:44]
Slava v vychnikh Bogou (Gloria in excelsis) [2:32]
Tébé poïem [2:31]
Nikolaï APOSTOLOV-STROUMSKI (late 19th early 20th c.)

Velikoïe slavoslovié (Grand doxology) [10:40]
Vladimir Ivanovich MARTINOV (b. 1946)

Apocalypse, Missa Russica [30:32]
Choeur orthodox Russe de Riga/Archiprêtre Johann Shenrock
Recording venue and specific dates not given. Copyright 2004

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Of all the choral traditions around the world, there is perhaps none so rich in harmony and sonority as that of the Russian and Eastern Orthodox Churches. With its penchant for heavily doubled voices (especially thirds, octaves and fifths) and its generally homophonic textures, this music is distinct and immediately recognizable, and at least to these ears, completely satisfying. In addition to the simplicity, there is an evident depth of meaning in these ancient chants, skillfully harmonized by a group of composers who have lived primarily in the last two centuries. The anachronistic orthodoxy of it all speaks volumes of the deep allegiance that these composers have to a centuries old tradition. Especially gratifying is the complete insistence upon retaining the a cappella tradition in spite of several calls over the years to add instruments so that composers could have a wider range of expression.

This release contains some simply sublime singing. Archiprêtre Johann Shenrock, has assembled a superb ensemble, and he has refined it into one of the most uniformly blended, consistently-in-tune choirs that I have heard in some time. There is often a tendency in this repertoire for choirs to sing with overly heavy vibrato and with an unwieldy and overproduced tone that leads to massive ensemble and intonation problems. Not so this group.

Opening with Iaïtchkovís harmonization of the Hymn to the Mother of God we are treated to a serene prelude to an hour of music-making that is bountiful in its delights. Tchesnokov, himself recognized as a fine trainer of choirs contributes a beautiful setting of texts from the liturgy for the feast of the annunciation. Set for male chorus with a soprano soloist (who is regrettably unnamed in the booklet) I was particularly impressed by the ease with which the first tenors handle their tessitura. There is no sense whatever that these singers are in anything but total control, and there is never a hint of a strain. The tone is meticulously matched between the sections.

There follows a number of "bleeding chunks" (to steal a phrase from the Wagnerians) from Rachmaninovís justly famous All Night Vigil, a work that has seen quite a resurgence in popularity in the last decade with some very fine complete recordings popping up on the market at regular intervals. It is in these performances that I have a couple of issues, mainly, that there is so much under-recorded music from this repertoire that I question the need to include this popular work. Secondly, I found that for my particular taste, Shenrockís tempo choices lie on the slow side, and I felt that the music became more static than I prefer to hear. Nonetheless, these are matters primarily of taste, and the quality of the singing remained extremely high in spite of my objections.

The two discoveries on this disc are the moving Grand Doxology of Apostolov-Stroumsky and the Martinov Apocalypse with text taken from the book of "Revelations" (sic). The former work relies heavily on tradition and is satisfyingly sonorous, with an again unnamed soloist (a bass this time) contributing some wonderfully priestly chanting. Martinovís work, although modern in every sense, depends heavily on the traditional style of Orthodox choral music, but ventures considerably further afield in its harmonic structure. A highly energetic and dramatic work, we poor non-natives would have benefited greatly from inclusion of the texts and translations. Other than that the music is appealing from a purely aesthetic point of view, it is very hard to discern the emotional or pictorial intent of the composer when we havenít the slightest idea as to what is actually being said.

Program notes are minimal but generally informative. Sound quality is above reproach. If there are faults with this release, they lie in the realm of the presentation and packaging rather than in the music-making which is superb overall. This and its companion volume (to be reviewed) are a fine introduction to this literature and should certainly serve as a gateway to further exploration of this fine body of music.

Kevin Sutton

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